Climb: Mt Rainier-Liberty Ridge
Date of Climb: 5/8/2004
May 8th – 12th Mt. Rainier, Liberty Ridge Trip Report
My partner, Jeff Van Lanen, and I headed up the Carbon River Trail on Saturday afternoon in mixed weather. Good fortune was with us as the trail had only opened the week before. Prior to that, the trail was littered with 4-8’ diameter trees that had been blown down in a freak windstorm last winter. The idea of scrambling over these downed behemoths with 50+ pound packs is not a pretty picture. Luckily we didn’t have to tackle this effort. We had no knowledge of this issue from our seats in CO. Finding current reliable information about road, trail and route conditions in the NW was a difficult and problematic issue. Nevertheless, it worked out. We walked until dark to a camp beside the Carbon Glacier at about 5500’.
Sunday dawned gray and lightly snowing. We continued our walk in up the lower portion of Curtis Ridge to a point were we were able to drop down to the Carbon Glacier. The clouds parted and we enjoyed a relatively easy walk along the glacier’s east side. Our plan was to approach Liberty Ridge from the Willis Wall side. We post-holed up the final bench under 100F conditions to find a large crack that ran the width of the Glacier. Our best reconnoitering indicated that a route to the east may yield safe passage over the crack but we had no way of knowing what lie between the crack and the base of the Ridge as it dropped down out of view. Given this situation it was time for tea, lunch a minute to contemplate our next steps. The decision was made to head right up into the Liberty Cap Glacier and start up the Ridge on the west side. After crossing 3 or 4 cracks, we gained the Ridge and climbed up to the ridge crest as darkness closed in. Snow conditions on the climb ranged from the occasional unusually hard ice to mostly thin crust on top of loose snow. We reached the Thumb Rock in darkness and set-up camp 2. Based on the pristine snow drifts and surroundings, it didn’t appear anyone had been to TR prior to our visit.
Liberty Cap Glacier/Ridge Base Picture
The Monday plan was to head up the Ridge, summit and get down to Camp Shurman. However, it wouldn’t work out exactly as planned. There are three possibilities right out of TR: Left, Center and Right. Apparently the Center route is normally ice filled and frequently avoided. Our view of the Center gulley was that there was very little ice, mostly rock and so we chose to move left. On our traverse around the rock buttress above Thumb Rock our progress was slow as we encountered much post holing and wading up through wind-slab/crusty snow to be capped off with a nice blue ice section to complete the traverse.
Above the rock buttress, the snow remained crusty with isolated pockets of boilerplate Styrofoam snow. As we approached the Black Pyramid, the snow conditions changed over to loose snow on top of hard ice. We hugged the rocks and ridge lines to avoid setting off slides. At some point, roughly 1000’, below the Black Pyramid the snow changed over to fairly hard ice that we continued through simul-climbing with the occasional ice screw for protection.
We skirted around the left side of the Black Pyramid on sketchy loose snow and exited onto the final ramp of unconsolidated snow on top of hard ice. Once again, staying on the Ridge line and hugging rocks we exited out of the steep terrain onto the gentler upper slope. From our vantage point, the bergschrund directly above looked large and potentially troublesome. We traversed west (right) across the Liberty Cap glacier skirting around several open crevasses to what appeared to be a good access point onto the final ridge to the Liberty Cap summit. The day’s light was fading, as was Jeff’s energy level after a 3rd day of twelve plus hours of effort. We decided to set up a bivouc on the side of a 50 foot ice buttress, just below an ice headwall capping the upper Ptarmigan ridge.
Jeff taking the lead just below Black Pyramid.
We scraped the snow from the side of the buttress down six feet. This yielded only a two foot bench at our feet, as the slope is steep in this area. Too small for a tent, we anchored everything to the ice including ourselves, draped the tent fly over everything, and sat down in our bags to weather out the sub-zero temps. Keeping our heads tucked inside our bags kept us warmer, but unfortunately got the bags quite wet. Finally 4:30am brought dawn’s grey light, we melted some snow for water and headed directly up the ice behind us. After one failed attempt to cross the bergshcrund, we were able to find a small, somewhat fragile looking, but adequate snowbridge directly above our nights’ bivy shelf. The 60-80 Ice gulley to the top was ascended in strong winds and cold weather. The final pitch up over the edge was made with the assistance of a good 40-50mph wind up the backside. While the assistance was appreciated, the upward spindrift was a nuisance. The ridge walk south to Liberty Cap summit was made on strange terrain consisting of bowling ball sized ice spheres partially buried in the hard snowpack. A relatively short walk to the summit, some quick photos in the 0F, 60+ mph winds and we were off to the Emmons for our descent into warmer, more hospitable climes.
Jeff on the Liberty Cap summit
Todd on Liberty Cap summit.
The guidebooks and web reports talk about a relatively short walk down the Emmons to Camp Shurman. While we found, the walk off Liberty Cap down to the head of the Emmons glacier a pleasant stroll on well compacted snow, the walk down the Emmons was filled with postholing and nervous glances about snow instability. The glacier was loaded with 12-18” of wind-depostied snow. We were able to cross the Emmons bergschrund and a couple of other upper large cracks near the North side of glacier (near Russell Cliffs). Once again, we didn’t see signs of other parties tracks or wands and so we reconnoitered the best we could.
Descending the upper Emmons Glacier.
Russell Cliffs near the top of the Emmons Glacier
At this time the Emmons is fairly well covered, but there are still several large cracks that need to be negotiated. In general, we stayed fairly close to the Russell Cliffs, but had to traverse a couple times to skirt trans-glacier cracks. Once down far enough to see the Camp Shurman destination, it became clear to us that we didn’t need to swing so far right as the lower Emmons and Winthrop glaciers were well covered except for a few large gapers. After making this correction, we headed down (The Shoulder?) and into the relatively flat, center section of the Winthrop. Travel time from Liberty Cap Summit to this point was about five hours. No land speed record here. With a nice break to melt snow and have a much needed lunch, we continued down to the 7000’ level on the Winthrop just below St Elmo’s Pass (camp 4). Snow conditions ranged from fairly solid wind scoured boilerplate to breakable crust around 8000’.
The following day started with mixed clouds and relatively warm temps, 20F. The walk out plan was to cross the lower portion of the Curtis ridge, catch the summer trail around Mystic Lake Pass and head for the lush green trail in the Carbon River rainforrest. Unfortunately, we got a late start and enjoyed hardpacked snow for the first hour until the clouds burned off and we began postholing once again in breakable crust. Even had the conditions been favorable for quick travel, the traverse from the Winthrop to Mystic Pass is a long one. We might have considered staying out one more night, but the thought of a good meal and soft bed drew us onward. Somewhere near the bottom of the infamous switchbacks we met a couple of young (20-ish) climbers heading in for Liberty Ridge. We babbled, the best we could about what we saw and wondered how these guys were going to get to the top with such tiny packs. We guessed at best they weighed 30 pounds and were not much larger than a winter daypack. Never heard how they faired. The rest of the trip is uneventful and rather tedious. The last 2 miles lasted an eternity, but we enjoyed the rainforest diversity.
Final route on Liberty Ridge as seen from initial approach.
In conclusions, my thoughts on the climb are that we went on the early side and would have moved quicker with better snow consolidation and previous parties routes marked (I know no guarantees). We had the right gear (bags, tents, pro, rope, axes, etc.). Skis would be killer from the top of the Emmons out. Bringing skis up Liberty Ridge would not be my preference, but perhaps a well compensated friend would drag a pair up to the Emmons saddle. My best wishes to all those who attempt this climb and my condolences to Peter Cooley’s family, who died just days after our climb. See you out there.
Carbon River Road in good shape.